For the past four years, I've been a student at the University of Waterloo studying in the Science and Business co-op program, specializing in Biochemistry. Being from B.C., one of the reasons why I chose to fly across the country to attend Waterloo was because of the co-op program.
The program has a requirement where students must obtain credits through completing various internships in order to graduate. The number of internships you could do through the program can be between 4 - 6. Looking back on my University experience, it's crazy to think about how I am about to graduate in a year.
I have completed four internships throughout my time at Waterloo and have been ranked “outstanding” (through the Waterloo ranking system) on all four. I am about to start my 5th and last internship this summer. I know the summer is also a very popular time for many students to embark on internships, so I thought I'd share some tips and tricks on what worked best for me to complete each internship successfully.
This article would not have been possible without any of my previous employers (Walter, Joanna, Rachel and Kevin), my roommates, the family at Front Row Ventures and the countless mentors I've had throughout my undergrad. Huge thank you to everyone that has helped me out to this day!
I also want to preface this article by saying no two internships will ever be the same. Depending on the type of job you work, the team culture, existing processes and more, the advice I'm about to offer you might not be applicable. Take what I say with a grain of salt, assess your environment and determine if this makes sense.
How to do well in an internship
I have identified 4 levels of impact which increasingly scale the value that you can bring to your employer. These 4 levels are:
- Completing your tasks
- Taking initiative
- Creating work that outlives you
- Automation of repetitive processes
1. Completing your tasks
This is the most basic level of delivering value. If you want a satisfactory experience for you and your company, you can spend your entire co-op just doing the bare minimum and completing what your employer assigns to you. It goes without saying that you should complete all tasks to the best of your ability and within an appropriate timeframe. Some other tips:
- Don't be afraid to ask questions, especially in your first few weeks. Your employer is fully aware that they've hired an intern, a student with little to no working experience. They don't expect you to come to the job already knowing everything. If something is unclear, it's better off that you ask those clarifying questions early on, then spend hours completing a task the wrong way. Making assumptions can be bad, especially when you're new to the firm.
- At the same time it's equally as important to understand what the right questions are, when to ask them and who to ask them to. The worst thing you can do is repeatedly bombard members of the team, distracting them from their work when it's a question you should've asked somebody else or could've spent some time just Googling.
- Try to set up some recurring touch points with your manager. These could be weekly, bi-weekly cadences (try to push for more frequent meetings, monthly meetings would be hard - you meet 4 times and your internship is over). Use these touch points as dedicated times for you to ask questions, ask for feedback and present drafts of the work you are doing. This will make life much easier for your manager as they avoid getting distracted throughout the work day with spontaneous asks from you. At the same time, it gives you the peace of mind that for the next 30 minutes (or however long the meeting is), you have time to bring up any questions or ask for feedback.
- Ask for feedback on your work. Having drafts will be very beneficial and getting feedback to ensure your work is headed in the right direction is great . Even if you think this work is ready to be submitted, you can send it over and label it as a draft and ask to see if there are any other changes that can be incorporated.
- Stay organized. Understand how to prioritize different tasks and ask for a due date.
For the investment bankers or audit interns out there reading this, take it with a grain of salt. There are certain co-ops where the role of the intern is fully defined and you are there to complete certain responsibilities. In fact, your entire co-op is probably just about completing tasks you've been assigned and that will end up with you working very, very long days :)
2. Taking initiative
In my experience, there will be times that you don't have any direct work being assigned to you and things slow down. An intern is only with a company a couple months at a time and it's hard to integrate you fully into systematic processes when working on large projects. It can also be hard for your managers to constantly think about “what direct work can I assign this intern”, they've got their own priorities and deadlines as well. My advice here is to take initiative. Here's what you can do:
- Ask members on the team if there's anything you can help out with.
- Be very observant. Try your best to understand what each team is responsible for and what they are working on. Is there anything you can do to support them? Would a piece of market research help them with what they're doing? Can you create a template for them to make their lives easier? Can you create a project dashboard to help keep things more organized?
- What is the overarching goal of the team? Is there anything you can contribute to get them closer to this goal?
- Be creative. Find areas where you can add value without directly being asked for it. You can pitch ideas to your manager, or better yet, start working on stuff before so if your manager or team all of a sudden asks for something, you will already have it prepared.
3. Creating work that outlives you
This one can help you leave your legacy on the company. Even after you leave, the team will be reminded of you and the work you've done. Here are a couple of ideas for creating work that outlives you:
- Create process documents. A process document is something that outlines how to complete a certain task with easy to follow step-by-step instructions. If there is work that you found really confusing to do when you first started and you know that future interns or someone else on the team is going to have to continue this work, there is an opportunity to create a process document. It's a chance for you to make someone else's life easier in the future so they don't have to go through all the learnings that you went to when trying to figure out how to complete a certain task.
- Creating a co-op manual. The on-boarding process might be exciting for you as a brand new co-op student, but think about it from the perspective of your employer. If it's an on-going co-op program, think about the countless number of interns they've had to onboard every four months. It's a time consuming and repetitive process. Is there an opportunity to improve the on-boarding process for the future wave of co-op students?
- Help teams get more organized. Can you help them create some sort of project tracker dashboard, are there templates that you can create that make repetitive processes much easier?
- The goal here is to create something that will keep providing value to the company even after you leave.
4. Automating processes
If you are already completing all of your assigned tasks, taken initiative for additional responsibilities and created some process docs - your next challenge is to try and automate something. The best tasks to automate are ones that are very repetitive and don't require a ton of analysis or critical thinking. I study Biochemistry and I have absolutely zero coding ability, but this doesn't have to be super fancy. Some tips:
- Identify areas of work that are highly repetitive but aren't very challenging to do.
- Don't be intimidated by all of the coding languages out there, sometimes, even learning a little bit of VBA macros for Excel can automate simple processes. This is your chance to learn.
Being able to automate something is at the very top of the value delivery chain for your employer. You have taken the initiative to go above and beyond a process document. You've automated the process so that no one else will ever have to spend the manual hours to complete it and this work will definitely outlive your time spent at the firm.
The most important part of your internship is to have fun!
This is an opportunity for you to learn. The good thing about internships is that they are temporary and only last 4 months (typically). Whether you love or hate your job, your time with the company will come to an end eventually. If you love the job, great! If you hate it, at least you figured out what you don't like so you can avoid similar work in the future. Cherish these times and best of luck on your future endeavours!
What's next for you?
Over the next couple of months, I hope to complete my undergrad and graduate in April. Throughout my internship and extra-curricular involvement, I’ve really found my interest in the world of startups and venture capital.
I will also continue leading the Investment Team at Front Row Ventures (we are hiring!) as we aim to find and invest in the best student entrepreneurs. Over the holidays, I’ve also joined the Valence Discovery team in a part-time manner, in an Ops focused role.
I work really closely with the co-founders, and it’s already been such a fantastic learning opportunity for me to see challenges of running an early start-up. Valence recently raised an $8.5M USD Seed round, so I’m excited to work with the team throughout this next period of growth and scaling!